There is nothing revolutionary about Robin Hood

Monday, September 19th, 2022

How long has it been since you’ve thought about Robin Hood?, Alexander Palacio asks:

He’s not around as much as he used to be; an odd absence for him and the venerable set of characters and stories that orbit him. Robin and his Merry Men seem underrepresented in modern media. The few big Robin Hood films made recently have flopped. And where is he on television, in video games, in the cultural consciousness? The great outlaw has vanished into the depths of Sherwood, while Nottingham’s forces are at their strongest.


The disappearance of Robin Hood can be stated simply. In the last few decades, writers keep making one or two mistakes when writing Robin Hood. First, they take a grim, gritty, realistic approach to the tone of the story and characters. Second, they interpret Robin’s outlaw status to make him transgressive in a way that is opposed to the medieval social order itself. These approaches are not compatible with Robin Hood as he exists in his archetypal form. They violate the valid expectations people have for a Robin Hood story.

In fact, they directly contradict two fundamental elements of Robin Hood. First, Robin Hood is a lighthearted hero whose personal reward for his actions is having fun. Second, Robin Hood is a defender of the traditional medieval social order against a transgressive nobility. The first point should be obvious. Robin Hood leads the Merry Men.


The second point needs a bit more explanation. It’s not the social order itself that Robin Hood opposes, but the burden of men who abuse their high station. Thus, Robin’s allegiances with Friar Tuck, the good man of the Church, and with whichever good king the story uses (often Richard Lionheart). In the symbolic, associative world of writing, Robin’s ties to Church and Crown simply do not bear interpretation as a revolution against the social order itself. It is the abuse or absence of the social order he fights, not its use or presence.

It’s important to note that in these tales, it’s the common people who support the medieval social order and the nobility and their lackeys who distort it.


These seemingly-trivial new approaches to Robin Hood are critical writing errors. They contradict some of the most foundational elements of a Robin Hood story. When you make your Robin Hood story dour and grim, you obviate the role he has in combating the sorrow that comes from the failure of the nobility to meet its obligations to the people. That’s why Robin always engaged in fun, in contests, in jokes at the expense of the overly earnest. The humour is essential to depict and understand the setting and social dynamics of the story.

When you oppose Robin Hood to the social order itself, you turn him into a mere revolutionary, instead of a defender. Which makes little sense, given his association with the twin bastions of the old order, the Church and the Crown. There is nothing revolutionary about Robin Hood — he is among the most reactionary characters going. But because Chesterton’s point about nobility and novelty is little understood, ideologues perform sleight of hand to reinterpret him as a Marxist class hero. You are left with a story that not only doesn’t make internal sense, but also doesn’t meet expectations for a story about Robin Hood. Nothing about it sings, so the movie flops and nobody reads the book.


  1. Bruce says:

    This is a good argument, and certainly the Men in Tights side of the story is attractive. But Robin Hood was close to Ivanhoe, an oppressed Saxon Noble fighting the Norman Yoke. Not revolutionary, exactly, but Loyal Opposition to the social order.

  2. Goober says:

    I’m kind of struggling to figure out why we’re even having this conversation. Robin Hood was, if anything, a loyalist who was fighting the usurpation of the English throne.

    He was loyal to (insert whichever king, but usually Richard the Lionhearted) and was fighting against forces looking to usurp the throne from him while he was away (usually on crusade, but the stories vary).

    In any case, he was far from a revolutionary. He was more akin to the Tories during the American Revolution than the American Revolutionists, themselves; fighting to maintain the rule of the king in the face of a movement to unseat him and take over.

    I’ve never actually heard anyone try to frame him as a revolutionary, which is where my confusion in the first sentence springs from. I’ve seen him presented as a sort of Marxist hero, sure, due to the whole “steal from the rich, give to the poor” thing, but even that wasn’t in an attempt to overturn the social order of the time, but rather to punish those who were disloyal to the King, and garner popular support among the peasantry for his efforts.

  3. Jim says:

    Perhaps Johnny Depp’s first three Pirates of the Caribbean may supply the appropriate vibe.

Leave a Reply